In 2002, the Pittsburgh Pirates had the first overall pick in the Major League draft. With the pick, the Pirates selected right handed pitcher Bryan Bullington out of Ball State University. Every year since then, during this time period of pre-draft rumors discussing who teams could potentially select, Pirates fans have been searching for the Bullington of each draft.
There’s a reason for this. Bullington has ended up as one of the worst number one picks of all time. Even on the day of the draft he was considered a bad pick. The top prospect in the draft was B.J. Upton. The top pitching prospect in the draft was Scott Kazmir. Bullington was the number four prospect in the draft, which is very good, but it was easy to say at the time that he wasn’t the best overall player. That was especially apparent when Dave Littlefield made the infamous statement that the Pirates saw Bullington as a future number three starter.
It’s perfectly natural to try and make player comps, which Pirates fans do every year around draft time, much like any other fan of any other franchise. The problem with player comps is that they tend to be forced, and they tend to provide too much surface analysis, without digging in deeper to the actual situation.
Take Bullington, as an example. Every year the Pirates, like every other team, get tied to a list of potential picks. Every year one of those players ends up being labeled the next Bryan Bullington. That label carries a specific meaning: a player who has less talent than other players, who will end up being a complete bust. This year, the “Bryan Bullington” of the draft seems to be Danny Hultzen. This has been mentioned in a lot of places, but was recently brought up in Rocco DeMaro’s podcast with Jim Callis (well worth the listen).
The problem with any player comp to Bullington, especially with Hultzen, is that the meaning of the comp isn’t guaranteed. Throwing a Bullington comp out there assumes the player will only be a number three starter, and will most likely be a bust. As Jim Callis pointed out in the podcast above, Bullington had more upside than a number three starter on draft day, although the upside wasn’t guaranteed. It’s hard to say why Bullington didn’t put it all together. It could have been the injuries, the poor development system by the Pirates, or a bit of both.
The problem with calling Hultzen the next Bullington is that it ignores what went wrong with Bullington. You can’t argue that the injuries didn’t play a role with Bullington. It’s also hard to ignore the horrible track record the Pirates had of developing first round pitchers (and to be fair, the current management group doesn’t have any success stories, although they don’t really have any failures at this point either). There’s no guarantee of an injury to Hultzen, and the development system is much different than it was under Littlefield, so suggesting Hultzen will be a bust, just like Bullington, is ignoring what is underneath the surface.
One issue with a Bullington comp is that it carries the connotation that the player receiving the comp isn’t any good, just because he’s not the best in the draft. That’s not true. Bryan Bullington was a good prospect. He didn’t turn out well, but that happens with prospects from time to time. Bullington wasn’t a bad player, but he wasn’t the best prospect available.
If the Pirates take Hultzen next week, they’ll be getting a good pitcher, and possibly a guy who can be a top of the rotation starter. The problem is that there are players who are arguably better. Based on the poor track record with college pitchers, I’d be much more comfortable with Anthony Rendon. If the Pirates are thinking about taking a college pitcher, I’d much rather go with Gerrit Cole, who has a better fastball, and a bigger upside than Hultzen.
A Bullington comp in this respect is appropriate, as long as it carries the right connotation. Hultzen is basically the Bryan Bullington of this draft. There are at least two players who are considered better talents, and you could argue that the Pirates wouldn’t be taking the best player available if they took Hultzen. However, what you couldn’t say is that the Pirates took a bad player. Hultzen is a very good prospect, just not the best available.
Hultzen gets a lot of credit for being the “safe” pick. A lot of reports suggest he could pitch in the majors today, and might not need much time in the minors. The top of this draft has been filled with question marks. Rendon has dealt with a shoulder injury, has been pitched around, and has seen a drop off in power, which could be the result of each of the previous issues, or even the metal bats. Gerrit Cole got off to a hot start early in the season, but struggled down the stretch. The questions surrounding Rendon and Cole give Hultzen some appeal as the “safe” pick, especially when there’s pressure to take a “guaranteed player” with the first overall pick.
The problem with being a “safe” pick is that there is no such thing. Hultzen might not have any question marks, but that doesn’t make him a guarantee. We saw that with Bullington. We’ve seen that with lots of prospects in baseball throughout the years. Rendon has question marks, but also has the upside of a .300 hitter, with 25 homers a year and above average defense at third. Cole has question marks, but has the upside of a frontline starter.
There are risks with Rendon and Cole. Maybe Rendon’s shoulder is a long term issue. Maybe Cole’s change-up success was a fluke. These two aren’t guarantees, but neither is Hultzen. If I’m making the choice, I go with the guy who has the biggest upside. That might be different if we could guarantee that Hultzen was a “safe” pick, but since no such thing exists, I’ll take the guy with the biggest upside every time. The Pirates made that mistake with Bullington, and the mistake only looked worse when Bullington’s career was derailed. Even if Hultzen doesn’t suffer the same bad luck that Bullington had, picking him would be a mistake, since he’s not the best talent available.